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President Declares Failed Mideast States Threat to U.S.

August 21, 2006 at 6:10 PM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: At this morning’s news conference, President Bush first spoke about the danger posed by failed states in the context of Iraq.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: A failed Iraq in the heart of the Middle East will provide safe haven for terrorists and extremists. It will embolden those who are trying to thwart the ambitions of reformers. In this case, it would give the terrorists and extremists an additional tool besides safe haven, and that is revenues from oil sales.

You know, it’s an interesting debate we’re having in America about how we ought to handle Iraq. There’s a lot of people, good, decent people saying, “Withdraw now.” They’re absolute wrong; it would be a huge mistake for this country.

If you think problems are tough now, imagine what it would be like if the United States leaves before this government has a chance to defend herself, govern herself, and listen to the — and answer to the will of the people.

MARGARET WARNER: The president was then asked about Iran’s growing influence in the region, particularly its sending weapons and money to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

GEORGE W. BUSH: The final history in the region has yet to be written. And what’s very interesting about the violence in Lebanon, and the violence in Iraq, and the violence in Gaza is this: These are all groups of terrorists who are trying to stop the advance of democracy.

They’re trying to thwart the will of millions who simply want a normal, hopeful life; that’s what we’re seeing. And it’s up to the international community to understand the threat.

I remember, right after Hezbollah launched its rocket attacks on Israel, I said this is a clarifying moment. It’s a chance for the world to see the threats of the 21st century, the challenge we face.

And so, to answer your question on Iran, Iran is obviously part of the problem. They sponsor Hezbollah. They encourage a radical brand of Islam. They’re a central part of creating instability, trying to stop reformers from realizing dreams.

And the question facing this country is: Do we, one, understand the threat to the America? In other words, do we understand that a — failed states in the Middle East are a direct threat to our county’s security?

And, secondly, will we continue to stay engaged in helping reformers in working to advance liberty to defeat an ideology that doesn’t believe in freedom? And my answer is: So long as I’m the president, we will. I clearly see the challenge.

Analyzing a direct threat

Rashid Khalidi
Columbia University
The real threat to the United States is, the policies of this administration in the Middle East... It gravely endangers the security of this country in the long run, and I think it's going to be a very long time before we can resolve the problems

MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the risks posed by failed states, we turn to two men who have written widely on the Middle East. Rashid Khalidi is director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. He's the author of "Resurrecting Empire: Western Footprints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East."

And Ralph Peters is a retired Army lieutenant colonel. His new book, "Never Quit the Fight," assesses U.S. strategic challenges in the Middle East.

Welcome to you both.

Ralph Peters, is the president right when he says that failed states in the Middle East are a, quote, "direct threat" to U.S. security?

RALPH PETERS, Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel: Yes, but -- I hope we can talk about it later, but I draw on the definition of failed states.

But as far as Iraq goes, it hasn't failed yet. We need to remember that. The odds may only be 50-50. But if it does fail, the president's assumption that it's a direct threat to us may not prove right. A failed Iraq with Sunni and Shia going at each other may be al-Qaida's Vietnam.

MARGARET WARNER: But more broadly, he was saying, if we go with the classic definition of failed state, is it not that where a central government really doesn't exercise effective control, and so you have non-state actors, as they call them, groups that establish their own militias and, he says, leads to violence. Is that kind of thing a direct threat to U.S. security when it happens in the Middle East?

RALPH PETERS: You know what, failed states, and certainly in the Middle East as well as elsewhere, tend to concentrate on their internal problems. They don't generate terrorists. The terrorists that attacked us on 9/11 and elsewhere came from stable states, I would argue other kinds of failed states in the Middle East.

The danger in a failed state, as Afghanistan was briefly, is it throws up a radical movement that provides a safe haven for terrorism which then directly threatens the United States. But if Iraq comes apart, they're going to be preoccupied with their own problems for a long time.

MARGARET WARNER: Rashid Khalidi, what's your basic take on the president's assertion about failed states being a threat to the U.S.?

RASHID KHALIDI, Middle East Institute, Columbia University: I think that one of the greatest threats to the security of the United States resides in the oversimplifications of this administration. The way in which the president in the piece you just ran, Margaret, ties together Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iraq, I think, really poses a serious threat to our security.

The differences between the various movements he's talking about, the degree to which in -- certainly the case of Lebanon, Hezbollah, in the case of Palestine, Hamas, we're talking about elected groups that managed successfully to win elections leads to a kind of dissidence, in terms of the president's rhetoric about democracy.

People in the Middle East see these as whatever they may be doing vis-a-vis Israel, representative groups that bring forward the aspirations of their people. The fact that the president says these are groups that are against democracy makes people believe -- with, I think, some reason -- that the United States is absolutely insincere when it talks about democracy and tries to crush an elected government in Palestine and supports Israel in smashing Lebanon and weakening a democratic government there.

So I think the real threat to the United States is, frankly, the policies of this administration in the Middle East. I think it gravely endangers the security of this country in the long run, and I think it's going to be a very long time before we can resolve the problems, not just in Iraq, that were caused by this administration.

A threat to the United States

Ralph Peters
Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Retired)
The terrorist problems we face from the Middle East are not America's fault. It's the fault of the extreme failure of Middle Eastern civilization. It was coming a long time before the Bush administration.

MARGARET WARNER: So I just want to make sure I understand. So you're saying that Hamas and Hezbollah are really no threat to the United States?

RASHID KHALIDI: No, I'm not saying that. Hezbollah carried out attacks against Americans back in the '80s at a time when the United States had invaded, had landed troops in Lebanon and was trying to do something that was against the will of most Lebanese. But since then whatever danger they've posed has been to Israeli occupation forces inside Lebanon. That's what created Hezbollah.

Hamas, as far as I know, and as far as I've seen, has never attacked America, the United States, or Americans. So I don't think either of them pose a direct threat to the United States. I would...

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me get -- OK, let me just Ralph Peters to comment on that point. That's what the president was really pointing to, was southern Lebanon, where -- I mean, yes, southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah was able to kind of establish this militia...

RALPH PETERS: A state within a state.

MARGARET WARNER: A state within a state with a militia.

RALPH PETERS: Yes, and a real government has to exercise a monopoly on violence, on power. And the professor's comments, I have to say that -- let's remember, you know, Islamic terrorism did not start with the Bush administration.

Now, you can fault the Bush administration for many, many things, but this is -- the terrorist problems we face from the Middle East are not America's fault. It's the fault of the extreme failure of Middle Eastern civilization. It was coming a long time before the Bush administration.

So if we're going to talk about this as adults, we need to get over, you know, the anti-Bushisms and look at the problem itself. And when you look at the problem itself, Hamas -- you know, that is a local issue, except it ties into Israel and Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is something else. Hezbollah is Iran's frontman in the Middle East, part of Iran's plan to be the hegemon and why, certainly, with nuclear weapons they would be. So it's not either/or, Margaret. There are ties. They're not always clear; they're not always crystal clear.

Hezbollah is not going to attack the United States directly tomorrow. But it depends on whether you take a narrow view or a broad view on the war of terror. I think those who take a narrow view are very foolish. If you do not take a broad view and look at the deep structural problems in the Middle East, you're going to fail again and again.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, to that point?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, I think one of the great structural problems in the Middle East is American intervention. We, in our support for Israel, created Hezbollah. Hezbollah didn't exist in 1982.

We have caused a failed state in Iraq. We have created a catastrophic situation which threatens regional security and which may well threaten our security in the long run, by what we have done in Iraq. It was a terrible, awful regime that attacked its neighbors, oppressed its people, but Iraq was nothing like the threat to regional security that that country is today.

We helped to incite a civil war in a country which had no particular history of direct sectarian violence. Yes, the Saddam Hussein regime had attacked the Kurds. Yes, it had attacked Shia revolutionaries in the south. But this is a country that has become a catastrophic failed state as a result of an American invasion.

Now, tying all of these things together, as the president does, to my way of think is, a, laughable; and, b, it's something that is, I believe, causing us serious problems. If we don't see the specificities of the Israeli occupation in Palestine or what has happened to Lebanon, not just because of Israel, not just because of us -- because of Syria, because of the Palestinian presence there, because of internal Lebanese problems -- if we don't see each of these things, in terms of its own specificity, and we go with the over-simplification of the president, we are really moving into a situation where there will be serious dangers to the United States in the long run.

U.S. backed failed states

Ralph Peters
Lt. Col. U.S. Army (Retired)
As far as Iraq failing goes, it hasn't failed yet, but the professor and all of us had best hope Iraq muddles through to at least a halfway success because it, frankly, may be the Arab world's last chance. This is a failed civilization.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, you're both talking about the dangers of over-simplification, but you clearly have a different view. Ralph Peters, what about Professor Khalidi's point that some recent history suggests that U.S. action or intervention or, in the case of Lebanon, Israeli intervention backed by the U.S. has helped create failed-state conditions?

RALPH PETERS: It's not true. There's a difference in language here. U.S. actions over the past half-century have exacerbated somewhat an already catastrophic civilization.

Now, whether or not you describe to Huntington's theory of the clash of civilizations, we are without doubt witnessing something without precedent, the crash of a once great, still proud civilization, that of Middle Eastern Islam. And the problem is that the Middle East is not competitive in any sphere, not even terrorism. We're terrorizing the terrorists.

And it's a problem of humiliation and jealousy, but it is homegrown. Again, you know, we made mistakes in the Middle East. We made a bad problem somewhat worse.

But when the professor criticizes and blames all this on the United States, it's the classic heart-breaking problem I encounter in the Middle East, where last week I was in Israel sitting down with senior Israelis. And the senior Israelis were looking at what was going wrong and criticizing themselves, their own system, "How do we make this right?"

I also sat down with a group and Saeb Erakat, who's about as good as the Palestinians get. Erakat immediately went into, "It's all Israeli's fault. It's all the United States' fault." And, you know, the plumbing doesn't work, so it's a CIA and Mossad.

The Arabs in the Middle East have got to come to grips with their own responsibilities. And as far as Iraq failing goes, it hasn't failed yet, but the professor and all of us had best hope Iraq muddles through to at least a halfway success because it, frankly, may be the Arab world's last chance. This is a failed civilization.

Problems in the Middle East

Rashid Khalidi
Columbia University
We should look very carefully at our own responsibility for creating the catastrophe that is Iraq, the responsibility of the United States ... We have created a dynamic that was not there before our invasion.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Khalidi, take that on, that long before U.S. intervened in the region, the Arab civilization, as Colonel Peters puts it, was failing?

RASHID KHALIDI: Well, perhaps Colonel Peters ought to read some of the many criticisms of the governments of the Middle East, of Middle Eastern culture coming out of the Middle East. I'm not sure that Saeb Erakat is the person to talk to about those things.

But it's true. Before the United States was involved, there were deep, profound problems in the Middle East. One of the things I talk about in this book, one of those problems was external intervention.

This is the most strategically important region in the world. This is a region which, since the British discovered oil in Iran in 1901, has most of the world's oil reserves. The degree to which it has become a penetrated system -- Britain, Russia, later on the Soviet Union, France, Italy, Germany, and now the United States -- are a large part of the problem in that region.

To say that there's no indigenous problem would be false. Of course there are profound indigenous problems. I wouldn't put it in the kind of stereotypical terms that Colonel Peters has. Of course there are.

I'm suggesting that these things have been more than exacerbated by the United States. I'm suggesting that, if you try and talk about Palestine, which is a country*, a people, a nation that's never had sovereignty, never had statehood, that has been under occupation by Israel ever since 1948, then you are -- and you ignore that -- you are trying to blame the victim, in essence. And I think that that's what Colonel Peters is doing.

I would finally say about Iraq, I think we should hope that the Iraqis succeed, but I think we should look very carefully at our own responsibility for creating the catastrophe that is Iraq, the responsibility of the United States. Iraq was a mess before the United States intervened, before the United States invaded, but we have created a dynamic that was not there before our invasion.

And that dynamic is a vortex that's going to have an effect on the whole region. I do not think the continued presence of American troops makes things better in Iraq. I shudder to think of what it's going to be like after the United States withdraws, but we are currently making it worse, in my opinion.

And I do not think that the debate in the United States over when we should withdraw is the right debate. I think we should be looking very carefully at the roots of this. And the roots of this do include problems inside Middle Eastern civilizations and in Iraqi culture, but to ignore the degree to which we have smashed that country, as Israel has smashed Lebanon, is irresponsible, in my view.

MARGARET WARNER: I'm sorry. We're going to have to leave it there. Professor Khalidi, Colonel Peters, thank you both.

RALPH PETERS: Thank you.

* Editor's Note: Several viewers questioned Rashid Khalidi's statement regarding whether Palestine had ever existed as an independent nation. In response, Professor Khalidi wrote the following response:

"It is a fact that in spite of UNGA resolution 181 of November 1947 for the partition of Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state, the Palestinians have never had sovereignty or statehood. That resolution, which was implemented insofar as the Jewish state it specified was concerned via the establishment of Israel 7 months later, was still-born insofar as the Arab state was concerned.

"Those are facts.

"It is also a fact that all of the territory of what was supposed to be an Arab state under that resolution came under the control of other powers. You are correct, however, insofar as only about half of it was occupied by Israel (which under UNGA 181 was supposed to obtain roughly 55% of Mandate Palestine, and which by the time of the armistice had taken control of about 78%, including half of what was to have been the Arab state). I misspoke on TV in that the remainder was, as you say, under Egyptian and Jordanian control from 1948-1967. (Yes, some of us, even professors, occasionally mis-speak on national tv.).

"Nevertheless, the result was that Palestinians have never had a state. Should you be interested in my considered views on these subjects, I suggest you read my large body of published work relating to them, including especially my forthcoming book, "The Iron Cage," which should be out in a month or so."